Fire Escape in The Glass Menagerie
Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie is replete with symbolism, and the fire escape is an important symbol in the play.
Leading out of the protagonists’ – the Wingfield’s – apartment, is the fire escape that has a landing. This physical structure represents an escape from the dysfunction and the fires of frustration in the Wingfield household. Tom makes his opening address to the audience from the fire escape.
Different characters see the fire escape in different ways. For Tom, the fire escape is a golden chance to get away from his nagging mother. For Amanda, it is a door through which gentleman callers for Laura can come. For it is a pathway towards the unknown and the dangerous.
The fire escape in The Glass Menagerie serves two functions. One is as a tool for characterization, and the other is as a symbol for a central theme of the play, which is “escape.”
Characterization in the play is brilliantly done by means of the contrast between the two central characters: Laura and Tom. Laura, who is symbolized as the fragile glass menagerie, stumbles on the fire escape, signaling her inability to escape her life circumstances. She is helpless and fragile to the point of being unable to use an escape route. Herman suggests that Laura has a disability, which makes her socially unsuccessful and shy. This is compounded by the fact that her mother Amanda is overprotective and smothering.
Tom, on the other hand, has the will and the ability to escape from the dysfunctional family, and he often steps out on to the fire escape landing to light smoke. His independent streak is very well demonstrated by his frequent trips to the fire escape landing. As a natural culmination of his yearning to be independent, he stands on the fire escape landing at the end of the play, ready to go out into the world and escape from the world of the glass menagerie.
The fire escape is integral to the theme of escape too in the play. Escape or the inability to escape is a theme of The Glass Menagerie. When there is a means of escape available, do people make use of it? Alternatively, do people get caught in their own life so much that they lose the will and the ability to escape? For Laura, escape is impossible, as the only time she tries the fire escape, she stumbles. Tom, however, wants to and can escape. He shows that many times by moving to the fire escape landing for a smoke, and finally at the end of the play by deciding to move away from the family.
The Glass Menagerie examines the universal conflict that arises when individuals must choose between self-fulfillment and family commitment (Janardanan). The fire escape in the play is the symbol of a path to self-fulfillment, which in the end, Tom takes, though he can never really forget his mother and sister.
Herman, Terah. The Disabled Family Dynamic in Drama: The Glass Menagerie, A Day in the Death of Joe Egg and Time for Ben. 2008. University of Kentucky, Master’s thesis. UKnowledge, www.uknowledge.uky.edu/gradschool_theses/528.
Janardanan, Dipa. Images of Loss in Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, Marsha Norman’s night, Mother, and Paula Vogel’s How I Learned to Drive. 2007. Georgia State University, PhD dissertation. ScholarWorks, www.scholarworks.gsu.edu/english_diss/23.
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